A non-printing character is a character which won’t actually get directly printed (or displayed) but rather interpreted. Such non-printing characters are for example line-feed or tabulation. The interpretation of those characters can differ from one system to the next. For example the line-feed character is different on Unix or DOS.
If you need an easy way to confirm that a text file is DOS or UNIX formatted (they differ with respect to the end of line character(s) for example) or if you wish to display normally non-printing characters of a text file, you can use the -vET command line switches of the cat utility.
As explained in the man page :
- -v : will use the ^ and M- notation for control and multibytes characters
- -E : will make ends of lines visible
- -T : will make tabulations visible
For example :
% cat -vET test.txt a test message for$ showing the^Iuse of cat -vET$ ^I$ that is all$
and compare it to the following plain cat output, without any command line option :
% cat test.txt a test message for showing the use of cat -vET that is all
You can easily tell what blank space is a space or actually a tabulation for example. If you’d happen to see ^M characters popping out at the end of the lines, then you this is actually a DOS text file (which you might need to convert to UNIX style end of lines with an utility such as dos2unix)